For the Birds

Sandhill cranesThis week my writing group, the Write On Mamas, was invited to share our work at a local senior residence. It was a delight to be there along with my fellow WOMers Janine, Mindy, and Steven. Here’s what I read, an old favorite of mine originally published in skirt!

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Like most married couples, my husband Jonathan and I have many pacts–no cheating, no badmouthing each others’ parents, no going to bed mad. Our agreements are the glue that holds us together.

One of our pacts is to never take up birdwatching. Jonathan and I spent way too much time as kids trapped in some swamp while our parents cooed over coots.

We once took a hike with our friend, Peter, an avid birder. Eyes downcast, my husband and I listened politely as he droned on about plumage and wing span.

“Oh,” Peter said, at last noticing our silence. “Children of birdwatchers.”

Since we have our youthful resentments to uphold, we cling to our pact even though every binocular-toting couple we know is happily married. Birdwatching may unite others, but not Jonathan and me.  If one of us strays, pulse quickened by a downy breast, it’s grounds for divorce.

Still, as long-term marrieds, we’re always on the lookout for new ways to spice up our relationship. The forbidden, even birding, holds allure. So what if it’s like watching paint dry?

That’s how we recently found ourselves driving to the delta with our friends Steve and Mary to catch the last of the sand hill cranes before they headed south. Or wherever cranes go when, sensibly enough, they tire of hanging out on the levees with bored teenagers gunning their engines.

Before we embark, my husband and I renew our vows.

“Promise me we won’t become birdwatchers,” I implore.

“I do,” Jonathan pledges.

Steve and Mary have an exemption. They even have a temporary placard for disabled parking. Sidelined from favored pursuits like hiking and backpacking by surgery, they have entered the phase of life Steve refers to as “recalibrated pleasures.” They’ve traded in their boots for Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guides and sunk a few thousand dollars into birding paraphernalia. No doubt they’re faking it, forced to find the silver lining in an unjust fate. We’ll be safe with Steve and Mary.

We pile into the backseat of their car. After a drive that lasts forever, strip malls give way to fields of rice stubble. We pull onto the shoulder of the levee dam road. “Look at the swans!” Steve and Mary exult in unison. It occurs to me that they’re not pretending.

The side of the road is littered with parked cars whose trunks yield vast arsenals of birding materiel. Pot-bellied men hoist huge tripods onto their beefy shoulders. Except for their girth and Audubon Society t-shirts, they could be mistaken for guerrillas sporting shoulder-mounted grenade launchers.

Birders are a passionate lot. Within a 10-mile radius, only my husband and I are cool to the wonders of feathered fauna. At least I hope Jonathan still is. He seems suspiciously enthralled as Mary explains the difference between divers and dabblers.

Steve spots the cranes on a distant bank. Even I have to admit they’re spectacular. After about 10 minutes of genuine oohing and another few of feigned ahhing, I’m ready to climb back in the car and head for civilization, or at least a Starbucks in one of those strip malls.

But people who routinely drive 100 miles in search of creatures they can’t see without expensive equipment are not prepared to settle for such a small return on their investment. So we look at the cranes. We look at ducks. We look some more.

Birding is like time-lapsed photography in reverse. The day slows down and stretches out in a languorous slow-motion crawl of nothing much happening. We drive farther. A chain-link fence separates the road from a plot of barren land. Steve spies a thin white line close to the horizon.

“Might be white pelicans. On the other hand, it might be plastic garbage bags,” he says with quiet excitement, as if either outcome would please him equally. Has his sense of pleasure been so radically recalibrated?

We train the binoculars on the barely discernible thread of white. Sure enough, they’re pelicans. But heaped together in a slovenly pile, these pelicans look like garbage bags with wing spans fluttering listlessly in the breeze. Perhaps it’s some kind of rare hybrid species: Feathered trash.

The day moseys along toward sunset. Mud hens are now indistinguishable from mud in the long shadows swallowing up the fields. The sky is streaked with cotton-candy wisps of pink and smoky gray.

It is also streaked with birds, flying in formations that, truth be told, look a bit ragged. No perfect, straight-edged V’s for these cranes and geese! Maybe they’re bored, too, and want to mix things up a little.

I think of my friend who took his family to see Winged Migration. Ten minutes into the film, his eight-year-old daughter elbowed him and said, “So this is it, huh? It’s just gonna be birds and then more birds all the way through.”

I’m with that girl! But is my husband still with me? He’s keeping up a steady stream of delighted chatter, admiring how graceful the airborne cranes look when they’re not stuck on land with their unruly necks and legs all akimbo. Jonathan’s enthusiasm makes me nervous until I realize that I, too, sound like I’m going to log on to one of those birding chat rooms the second I’m near a computer. I sidle up to Jonathan in the gathering darkness and whisper, “You haven’t gone over to the light side, have you?” He smiles and squeezes my hand hard, twice, our secret code. Birds of a feather flocking together. Such a man I have married! Black silhouettes fly against a crimson sky; white lies fly below.

“It’s so beautiful,” I exclaim, this time sincerely. Not only because together my husband and I have resisted the call of the wild, but because of how the bloodshot-turning-charcoal clouds are reflected in the little pools of water dotting the furrows. The delta at twilight looks like sepia shards from a shattered kaleidoscope.

We stow the scopes, the tripods, the binoculars, the books back in the trunk. Relieved, we climb into the car and head for home. Steve and Mary point out raptors on the power lines while Jonathan and I hold hands silently, eyes closed, in the backseat.

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Postscript: Years later, Jonathan and I are still stubbornly resistant to birding. We know a hawk from and a hummingbird, and are happy to leave it at that. Steve and Mary, meanwhile, have traveled all over the world on birding expeditions. They are still our friends, though they haven’t invited us along on any more outings. What shared interests and antipathies do you and your sweetie enjoy?

 

Love or Death?

“Let’s do 36 Questions during the flight!” I proposed to my husband, Jonathan. Long plane rides were in our immediate future, as we planned to celebrate our 60th birthdays, 29th wedding anniversary, and his impending retirement with travel to Barcelona, the Pyrenees, and the Alps.

Not being a Modern Love aficionado, Jonathan had no idea what I was talking about, but he knew me well enough to be suspicious. Therapists like me are always proposing innocuous-sounding activities designed to plumb the hearts and souls, if not the unconscious, of their loved ones.

“The 36 Questions promote love and intimacy as people answer ever-deepening questions,” I explained. “You finish by staring into one another’s eyes for four minutes.”

I don’t remember Jonathan’s exact response, but it was something like, “I would rather chop off my right arm.”

So I gave him a choice.

“If you don’t want to do the 36 Questions, why don’t we both read Being Mortal, and then discuss in detail end-of-life issues?” I suggested. “After all, ‘Shoot me if it comes to that’ is hardly a plan!” I was referring to something I’d said after a particularly depressing visit to a friend with advanced Alzheimer’s, but we’d never taken the conversation much beyond mutual dread and hand-wringing.

On a cheerier note, I added, “Besides, I don’t even know your favorite color or what music you’d want at your memorial.”

Again, I don’t remember Jonathan’s exact response, but this time it was along the lines of, “I would rather chop off my right arm but first I will chop off yours if you don’t stop asking me these things.”

This hardly seemed fair, since I had agreed to go hear some guy natter on about annuities just so we could get a free dinner, which threw me off my diet for a week.

Still, a loving spouse must not hold grudges.

A loving and determined spouse must find new methods of persuasion that may or may not involve alcohol and sexual favors.

One of my methods was to forward Jonathan a podcast featuring Dr. Arthur Aron, the psychologist whose team devised the 36 Questions. He, like Jonathan, seemed a lovely and intelligent man, not some woo-woo freak.

“The questions were actually designed to promote better working relationships among colleagues! It takes just 45 minutes!” I explained, assuming this logic would somehow melt the resistance of my wary husband. Instead, it increased his dread that he’d soon have to avoid overpaid, questionnaire-wielding consultants promoting team-building at work as well as his own wife.

“Plus,” I added triumphantly, as if I had discovered the pièce de resistance for overcoming resistance, “It works best if couples do it together! We can do it with ________ and _______.”

I provide this fill-in-the-blank format not only to protect privacy, but to illustrate that you could pretty much write in the names of anyone you know, and achieve the same outcome: The vast majority of people named in at least one (if not both) of those blanks would be more willing to chop off their right arms than to take the time to answer some VERY BASIC QUESTIONS that might, just might, improve their sorry little lives! But I digress . . .

It was back to death trumping love. Thinking to enlist the help of my mother-in-law, who routinely says, “We’re counting on you to put us out of our misery when the time comes,” I told her about my Being Mortal Couple’s Book Group Idea.

“I don’t blame Jonathan one bit,” my mother-in-law said. “Why would anyone want to read that book? “

The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, does it?

With our trip just two weeks away, I was growing desperate. God forbid I should actually plow through back issues of The New Yorker and a couple of ebooks on the plane instead of threatening strengthening my marriage!

In a last-ditch ambush attempt on a lovely, long hike, I said in my best, neutral tone, “I’m curious about why you don’t want to do the 36 Questions?” (Just a few days earlier Jonathan had answered the same question about Being Mortal by declaring that he was not “drawn to death” the way I was.)

“Fine, we can do it,” Jonathan replied in a perfectly even and affable tone, depriving me of the chance to pounce on any tell-tale defensiveness.

So now the ball’s in my court. I’ve added 36 Questions to my Trip To-Do List. Shall I print them out or download the free app? (No, I am not kidding—there’s a free 36-Questions App. Several, in fact.)

Then again, maybe I’ll just catch up on my New Yorker backlog or try to catch some shut-eye during our 16-hour flight.

That might just be the best anniversary present I could give my beleaguered and beloved husband.

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Which would you choose (conversationally speaking)—love or death?

Lightweight

lightweight backpacking equipmentJudging from my saga of preparing for camping, then actually going camping, you might think that “Lightweight” refers to me! But it’s actually an homage to my long-suffering husband, Jonathan, written when he was really in the thick of his lightweight backpacking craze a few years back:

  • 24-ounce mega-cans of Heineken beer
  • Snack-sized Starkist tuna lunch kits

This could be the shopping list of a frat boy who cares about  Omega-3 fatty acids but not about mercury. Instead the list is my husband’s, and he’s not even a drinker. Jonathan intends to pour the beer down the drain, give the cat a treat, and fashion a portable stove from the cans.

Jonathan is obsessed with lightweight backpacking. He spends hours online chatting with like-minded fanatics about the newest miracle fabric that repels water, retains heat, and is lighter than air.  They swap recipes for freeze-dried concoctions requiring less space than a teabag. Each gram shaved from the overall weight of the pack is cause for celebration; it means he can go faster and farther on his solo trips into the wilderness.

Jonathan spends all day experimenting, drilling holes into the beer can, creating a miniature windscreen. Our teenaged daughter catches him trying to boil water in his makeshift tuna-can stove. Rolling her eyes, she declares, “This mid-life crisis has gone too far!”

I know I should be grateful. Other men troll online for extramarital flings or buy expensive sports cars to stave off the onslaught of age. My husband is both frugal and true.

Yet I can’t help but wonder about his preoccupation with traveling light. How much does he long to unburden himself of home and family, of a life heavy with obligation?  The mortgage, my hot flashes, college tuition, endless household chores–they all add to his load.

No wonder Jonathan wants to set off unencumbered at a swift pace. Come to think of it, I’d like to join him. If I promise to travel light, maybe he’ll boil enough water for two.

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What encumbrances would you like to shed?

 

Return from the Wild

Long Lake, Eastern SierraReaders of Shrinkrapped’s last post may be wondering how I, or at least my marriage, fared on our recent trip to the Eastern Sierra. To recap, I am not a fan of camping. Or discomfort. My husband, Jonathan, on the other hand, has bookmarked “Lightweight Backpacking” on his desktop.

Since it was 105 degrees in Bishop, we lucked out with balmy nights 4,000 feet higher up. So I was able to use my sleeping bag as a quilt after all. I was so grateful, I barely minded the cheek-to-flocked-vinyl sleeping experience afforded by Jonathan’s ban on sheets (which, after all, add a couple of extra ounces to the weight of the two-ton car).

True, hot weather meant hot hiking, but since the Sierra Club trip leaders, like time and tide, wait for no man (or woman), we were on the trails before 8:00 a.m. every day. It was good to beat the heat, since all the hikes were 12+ miles long with 2,300+ feet of elevation gain. With a group of 24 hyper-competitive hikers, it was a bit like the running of the bulls in Pamplona: Stopping for a sip of water meant being trampled to death.

But did I mention how beautiful it was? There’s a drought on, but the wildflowers were still good, if a month earlier and not as profuse as they would be in wet years. Shooting Star, Eastern Sierra The mosquitoes, however, seemed to think there was sufficient moisture.

So a good time was had by all, especially the mosquitoes. Also, important research was conducted:

  1. What is the amount of heat lost with every millimeter’s worth of air mattress deflation?
  2. Does DEET from that bottle of Jungle Juice you bought from REI thirty years ago retain its efficacy?
  3. Have DEET-impervious mosquitoes evolved over the last three decades?
  4. Are hiking poles worth the trouble?
  5. If the check engine light comes on during Day 3 of a 7-day trip, when should you call your mechanic?
  6. How many days will a marriage last without showers?

Bonus question: Before or after our return to showers?

 

 

Gearing Up for Camping

Camping gear

My husband, Jonathan, and I are about to embark for a week in the eastern Sierra. The first three nights involve camping with a group of fanatical hikers who think nothing of day after day of 13+ mile hikes with 3,000+ foot elevation gains. But despite our aging knees, it’s not the hiking that gives me pause. It’s the camping.

I loved backpacking in my youth, but I was never that keen on camping. With backpacking you know you’ve abandoned all comfort at the trailhead, so you quickly stop dreaming about high thread count sheets. With camping, though, it’s always in the back of your mind that you could just jump in the car and drive to a motel for a good night’s sleep.  We had a lot of fun when our kids were younger camping with the Girl Scouts. But that’s because we stood around “watching the kids” while our friends did all the work. Basically, I’m like my friend Roberta, whose idea of acceptable camping is a hotel without room service.

But it seemed like a good idea at the time when Jonathan asked if I’d like to try camping again. Now that we’re going, we’re getting our gear ready. Trouble has set in even before we’ve gotten to where the oxygen is thin.

Like in our living room, as we try to remember how to set up our tent. As the scent of mildew permeates the house and we nearly knock over the lamp with the fully extended aluminum poles, we argue about whether or not we’ll need the fly.

“It might be cold,” I point out, as Jonathan frowns.

Then it’s time to see if the air mattress has a slow leak. At least we are persuaded it doesn’t have a fast leak, so we are happy. Until I propose getting a sheet to cover it.

“We don’t need a sheet,” Jonathan says. “I am not bringing a bunch of blankets and sheets. You’ll be in a sleeping bag.”

Did I mention how much I HATE being confined in a sleeping bag, and like to spread one out under me, one on top, my legs akimbo in a sensible sprawl?

“This is not lightweight backpacking,” I counter. “Can’t we go for comfort?”

Apparently not. Meanwhile, Jonathan starts to talk about how nice it would be just to slip into his bivvy sack and sleep under the stars. He looks longingly at his one-person tent.

Our last decision involves water shoes. You can guess who is pro and who is con, and who is welcome to bring them as long as she is willing to carry them.

Luckily, the last three nights of our trip will involve sleeping inside on mattresses, so I think our marriage will survive.

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Camping trials and joys? How compatible are you and your sweetie’s vacation and/or packing preferences?

Steady Hands

Stomach injectionFor the past week and a half, since my husband Jonathan had eye surgery to correct strabismus, I’ve been applying a thin line of ointment to his inner eyelids each night. It’s been something of a slapdash operation–the ointment sometimes sticks to his eyelashes, sometimes runs down his cheeks. It makes me wonder how on earth I ever got drops into our daughters for pink eye when they were little—Jonathan, unlike them, has not even screamed or squirmed. Eventually we figured out that if he rolled his eyeballs back into his head, the ointment got within spitting distance of the target area. Still, it’s a lucky thing I never aspired to become a brain surgeon.

All of which sparked my memories of a year ago, in the days following my last chemotherapy infusion, when Jonathan gave me my final Neupogen shot. (Neupogen stimulates white blood cell production.) For five nights of each chemo cycle, I’d lain on the couch while Jonathan swabbed my exposed belly with alcohol before carefully plunging a syringe into the fatty tissue. The first cycle we’d nervously joked about the movie Memento, in which an injection gone awry leads to amnesia and an excellent film. But nary a drop of blood did he draw the whole time. I can’t imagine entrusting myself to anyone else.

There were many steady hands holding me throughout six months of treatment–my doctors and the always cheerful Kaiser staff, my therapist, my yoga class, Michael at Pine Street Clinic, my daughters (who in honor of my remaining wisps of hair dubbed me Gollem), and, of course my many wonderful friends and family members who cheered me with delicious food, walks, emails, flowers, CDs, presents, visits, and funny YouTube links. I wouldn’t have made it through without everyone.

Yet the steadiest was Jonathan, who was there from the first terrifying news of diagnosis through it all: hours of surgery not knowing how far the cancer had spread; uncooperative catheters; private sadnesses and fears; doctors’ visits; a wife with no appetite who didn’t put dinner on the table but who still obsessed about her weight; hair loss; and all the usual demands like taxes and college tuition. On top of it all Jonathan worked 10-hour days to keep the paychecks and medical insurance in place, and he did it all without complaint. He even endured my most incessant question: “How do you really feel?”

I’m not sure how he really felt. But I feel incredibly lucky to have him: steady hands, steady heart, mind, and soul.

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Who’s your steady?

 

Love, Actually

Green for sustainability

Green for sustainability, a little scuffed for reality

“Our lives are so boring,” my husband remarked recently. “Pretty much the same thing from one day to the next.”

“That’s why the girls have a horror of becoming us,” I replied. “And also why it’s so hard to write the holiday newsletter year after year.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jonathan continued. “I’m really happy with our lives.”

Me too.

Perhaps it’s just self-delusion, but I’ve long thought that the secret to a happy marriage is a high tolerance for boredom. Jonathan thinks the secret is watching DVDs of long-running TV shows, like Friday Night Lights. Our Friday nights consist of pizza and Netflix. Our latest addiction is The Good Wife, which has the advantage of 6 seasons with 23 episodes each. Not to mention the salutary impact of the title’s subliminal message!

Still, even Jonathan and I have our limits. So the other night we decided to shake things up a little by going to see a live one-man show at our local community theater. As soon as the lights went down and the performer appeared onstage, Jonathan’s eyes closed. I would have elbowed him awake, except my eyes closed soon after. We made our escape at intermission, and settled in for the next episode of The Good Wife.

Perhaps the natural arc of long-term love moves from rutting to rut. Couples dubbed by “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones as “appreciatively resigned” fare best with this trajectory.

We can come to appreciate some pretty strange things.

The other night, for example, I was laboring over a clogged toilet that looked as if it might defeat even Roto-Rooter. Jonathan came in and asked if he could help. I remembered a midnight years ago, same toilet, same linoleum floor, my exhausted husband cleaning up from the latest round of our daughters’ stomach flu. Back then I was inexplicably turned on watching him mop, flush, and mop again. “Is this what it’s come to?” I’d thought in despair. I couldn’t imagine anything more depressing than reviving muted passion over an overflowing toilet. How low we had sunk from the days of mutual fascination! But a wise friend saw it differently: “There’s nothing more intimate than seeing someone take such tender care of those you love.”

Those kids are gone now, leaving none of their messes to clean up. Intimacy is the glue that keeps us together. Not the intimacy of candlelit dinners and sexy lingerie, but enduring intimacy, which requires a continual process of mutual forgiveness for not remaining as exciting as when we first fell in love. We stay together precisely because we know each other’s messes, and mop up after them patiently and lovingly time and time again. Not because we have to, but because we want to take care of those we love.

And because we always look forward to the next episode.